Open your mouth and say “ah”

In 1863, James Fuller Queen sketched this Union regimental field hospital set up inside a church. Doctors played critical roles not only in caring for sick and wounded soldiers, but also in weeding out medically disqualified men seeking to enlist. (Library of Congress)

In the summer of 1862, prospective recruits joining the five new infantry regiments forming in Maine faced one gauntlet not run by the volunteers of ’61: tougher medical exams.

Fourteen months earlier, doctors had approved recruits because they had sufficient fingers and toes and a palpable pulse. Stunned by vast numbers of soldiers medically discharged from the ranks because of disease and physical infirmities, the War Department had tightened the medical criteria since then.

The contrast was conspicuous, particularly to the combat veterans like Adelbert Ames and Charles Tilden sent to whip the new Maine regiments into shape. “The physique … of this regiment will be admirable, [with] most scrupulous care being taken by the examining surgeon, Dr. Briggs of this city, not to admit any men into its ranks who are not thoroughly able-bodied,” a correspondent said in Augusta. “The critical examination of Dr. Briggs has excluded many a man who has therefore been compelled, much against his desires, to go home.”

In a July 1863 issue of the Maine Farmer, editor Ezekiel Holmes reprinted a juicy tale about a Maine woman who tried to enlist in the 16th Maine so she could accompany her sweetheart to war. After passing a surgeon’s examination — that doctor evidently thought the woman was a man — she was found out and kicked out.

Unqualified recruits still slipped past the medical screening. Seeking to accompany “her lover, who had enlisted” in the 16th Maine, an Androscoggin County woman “passed the Surgeon’s examination as to health” and traveled to Augusta “with the recruits from Lewiston,” Ezekiel Holmes appended a juicy Kennebec Journal tidbit in his Maine Farmer.

The woman was “of masculine frame, is sun burnt, and to all general appearances would pass as a hardy man,” said a KJ reporter who apparently met the distaff recruit. “She is patriotic, is willing to expose herself to hard marches and hard fighting for her company,” the reporter ironically listed the reasons given for letting women serve in the American combat arms 140 years later.

Detected and “rejected from the service” on Thursday, June 26, the woman “was furnished with the means of reaching her home, for which she departed in her male attire, which really looked adapted to her make and manners.

“She would probably be as efficient a soldier as most men who in engage in battle,” the reporter commented.

Of the recruits reporting for duty, failed medical examinations sent some patriotic men home on the next available stage or train. A few responses by turned-away recruits suggest that they had enlisted to escape their home lives.

Under General Order No. 12 issued by Maine Adjutant General John Hodsdon on May 22, 1862, each 16th Maine Infantry recruiter had to find “some reputable physician to examine candidates for enlistment.” Paid 25 cents per recruit “finally accepted by the United States mustering officer,” a doctor had a pecuniary interest in passing every physically flawed specimen of Maine manhood who darkened his examining room‘s doorway.

Unfortunately, physically disqualified men still slipped through the medical screening, and the wonder is that the freelancing physicians, who received no compensation for rejecting ill or elderly men, failed as many recruits as they did.

Sources: Letter by “Skirmisher,” July 11, 1862, Portland Daily Press, Saturday, July 12, 1862, italicized in the original; Maine Farmer, Thursday, July 3, 1862; 1862 Maine State Adjutant General’s Report, Appendix A, p. 3

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.